As with any product that is intended for consumption, pet food products can be associated with various product risks and safety concerns. For instance, contaminated pet food can result in injuries, sickness, and even deaths of various types of pets, such as cats, dogs, rodents, and other animals. Along with the recent wave of contaminated pet food and the deaths that it has caused, there has been some confusion over the nature of the legal situation.
There are many ways that pet food can cause health and injury concerns for animals. Some of these risks and safety issues can include:
- Issues with toxic substances, bacteria, viruses, and other issues that can result in contaminated pet food;
- Unwanted objects in the food that might injure the pet, including metal objects, sharp items, bones (where there should be none), and other items that may have gotten into the pet food product;
- Dangerous elements of the packaging or other aspects of the product; and/or
- Including ingredients that should not be the pet food product, as it could cause an allergy or more serious injury in the pet.
There are many other ways that pet food can injure an animal. The injuries and risks are often dependent on the type of pet, as each type of pet has different food needs.
There can sometimes be a fundamental problem with the nature of the pet food. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration and veterinarians are concerned about dogs eating foods containing peas, lentils, or potatoes as the main ingredient. There is a belief that certain breeds eating these types of foods can suffer from serious heart problems.
Because the deaths and injuries caused by the contaminated pet food involved animals, the law views the situation differently than it would if humans had died. The law in most U.S. states views pets as property. Any negligent act which causes harm or death to an animal is treated as property damage, not personal injury. So, while the negligently-caused death of a close family member might entitle a person to damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship, the death of an animal entitles the owner to far less. The owner will, at most, usually be able to recover the market value of the animal and veterinary expenses.
In some recent cases, the lawyers for pet owners have argued that pets are "special property" – that is, they have some intrinsic value to their owners not measured by their market price. This doctrine is well-established concerning unique family heirlooms, and other items of value that is not easily quantified, but whether or not it will be successfully applied to animals remains to be seen.
Issues surrounding separation/divorce have resulted in the question of “pet custody” which argues that pets are special property. As the importance of pets in the family grows, the question of the status of pets in our lives will continue to be shaped.
To recover anything, the owner of a pet sickened by tainted pet food will have to show that the food was a direct cause of the pet’s illness. Proving liability is a complex matter and can involve various legal theories and concepts. In most cases, the lawsuit will be based on a product liability claim. This can be further divided into three subcategories, which depend on the nature of the product defect. These categories are:
- Warning Defects: These are defects that involve deficiencies or shortcomings with proper warning labels for the product. For instance, if a type of pet food does not contain proper warnings regarding its consumption, it could cause an injury
- Manufacturing Defects: These are defects with the way the product is assembled or put together. Most cases where there is a foreign object or contaminant in the food have to do with a manufacturing defect (that is, the object usually enters the food somehow during the manufacturing process).
- Design Defects: These are product failures that have to do with the way the product is formulated or designed. For instance, if a pet food product was designed to include substances that are actually harmful for the pet, it could lead to legal liability.
The issue of damages will likely be far more complex. In most cases, the non-liable party may be entitled to a damages award. This is a monetary amount intended to compensate the plaintiff for the losses caused by the pet food issue. In most cases, this will be in the amount of the fair market value of the pet. Depending on the case, other types of damages may be available. State laws may vary as well regarding the amount of damages issued.
If your pet suffered injuries or died as a result of consuming contaminated pet food, you should consult a products and services attorney to understand if you have a legal claim. Pet food injury claims can be complex and may require the assistance of a lawyer. Your attorney can provide you with advice, representation, and guidance for your case.